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Welcome to Canada, where the little guy loses

Professional hockey players cut in front of old ladies waiting for flu shots, and a Chinatown grocer gets charged for catching a thief.

What Stewart sees as a question of social justice erupted while residents in Toronto debated a matter that had shades of vigilante justice.

It involved Wang (David) Chen, a grocer in the city’s bustling Chinatown district downtown. The 35-year-old father of two children has become a cause celebre among storeowners. His fate has also convinced many that the law is an ass.

The story began last May, when Chen’s security camera caught serial shoplifter Anthony Bennett stealing $60 worth of plants displayed on the sidewalk of Chen’s Lucky Moose supermarket.

An hour later, Chen spotted Bennett returning to the scene of the crime, and with the help of two employees, chased him down. They tied him up, threw him in the back of a delivery van and called police.

Bennett, a crack addict with a long list of prior convictions, was charged with shoplifting. Then came the twist: Chen and his employees were charged with assault, kidnapping, unlawful confinement and carrying concealed weapons. (The weapons in question were box cutters, a tool of the trade for those working in grocery stores.)

Chinatown shopkeepers, many of whom claimed to be victims of Bennett in the past, were outraged. Within weeks, they had raised thousands of dollars for Chen’s legal defense.

Under Canada’s Criminal Code, citizens’ arrests are permitted only when a criminal is caught in the act. Chen instead caught Bennett an hour later. But many weren’t interested in the finer points of the law. Neither were they inclined to consider scenarios the law hopes to prevent — vigilante justice, or citizens getting killed if the crook they chase down is armed with a knife or gun. All they saw was a hardworking storeowner who had the book thrown at him for catching a thief.

It got worse. Bennett pleaded guilty to stealing 10 plants from Chen’s store. But his sentence was reduced from 90 to 30 days in jail because he agreed to testify against Chen. When that legal nugget became known, the sound of cerebral fuses popping could be heard across the city.

Last week, prosecutors dropped two of the toughest charges against Chen — kidnapping and concealing a weapon. With the only indictable offense withdrawn — kidnapping — Chen now faces trial by judge alone rather than by jury. A jury, many assume, would have found him innocent in a heartbeat.

He faces a maximum two years in jail and has rejected plea bargain offers of lesser sentences in return for a guilty plea.

“In China, if this happened … the thief would be on trial, not the storeowner,” Chen told the Toronto Star newspaper.

There’s not much that connects Chen with swine flu vaccine privileges, except that in both cases, the little guys seems to end up at the bottom.